Air Force Association Victoria

Supporting Those Who Served And Who Are Serving

WWII Memories of 2 Squadron

This wonderful piece on the memories of Mr Alex Greig (125672) of his time with 2SQN in WWII, was written by his wife, Mrs Deidre Greig. Mr Greig is 93 years old and lives in Sorrento.

Soon after leaving school and entering the workforce, Alex joined the RAAF cadets and enlisted at 18 years after training at Cressey, Nhill and Deniliquin and qualifying as a fitter-armourer.   He then moved to the RAAF’s No. 2 Squadron and was transferred to Darwin, which had been under siege by the Japanese.  

It was 1943 and just a year previously, the city had suffered crippling surprise air attacks from the Japanese that were both unexpected and horrifying to a populace basking in the illusion that it was immune from enemy invasion.  

On 19 February 1942, more than 240 Japanese aircraft had attacked the shipping in the harbour and the town’s two airfields in an attempt to prevent the allies using them as a base to contest the inroads they had made into Timor and Java.  It was a nervous time for Darwinians, many of whom were repatriated southwards for their safety.  

These events made increasingly evident the need for Australia to mount a strong defensive strategy to protect the islands to the north from further invasion and Japanese occupation and, in this regard Darwin, was a pivotal RAAF base.

For Alex, the journey from Adelaide on the ancient goods train aptly named Leaping Lenawas a jerky and rough introduction to the 45mile Hughes strip south of Darwin that was established as the Squadron’s base.    Whilst there, he was seriously burned on the back and legs when a colleague used aircraft fuel in a pressure lamp in lieu of kerosene and tossed it outside the armament hut to disperse the explosion.    The explosion impacted on the passers-by, and both Alex and another airman suffered serious second and third degree burns and were rushed to the Darwin Hospital. 

Fortunately, penicillin had just been introduced and this, together with careful nursing, saline infusions, a rubber bed, and salt baths led to rapid recovery.  However, as he was unable to resume normal duties immediately, he was invited to take over the welfare role of the Salvation Army while the officer in charge was on compassionate leave down south.  

This position involved responsibility for the field unit and the distribution of a range of those amenities much appreciated by serving personnel.  It also included driving the fully equipped Salvos mobile van with its supply of cold drinks and other refreshments to the ground staff hard at work in the searing tropical heat on aircraft maintenance.  The greeting was always the cry of Holy Joe.  It was disquieting at first, but soon an accepted part of the twice daily ritual taken in good humour. 

The overall welfare task was lightened by the assistance of three young men, who had been prisoners of war and mistreated by the Japanese.  One memorable event associated with the mobile service was a bridge collapse during a tropical storm with the result that the van had to be abandoned on the edge of the water and left to the mercy of the overnight incoming tide.   Next day it was towed back to base and three Japanese prisoners were delegated to assist with the stock reclamation, while the mechanics worked on the engine that had been affected by salt water.

The tensions surrounding the Squadron’s mission did not abate.  By early August 1945, it was clear that the Japanese were facing defeat and 2 Squadron moved its bombers from the Hughes strip to Balikpapan in Borneo.  Most of the fleet comprised Mitchell bombers and, very frequently, their effectiveness was diminished by the poor standard of communications that seriously hampered the sorties over New Britain, where further relocation had been planned for the Squadron.  

Alex expected to be in the advance party to set up the new facility at Balikpapan but this did not eventuate and his friend, Les Campbell, was part of the first unit to fly out.   To the dismay of all, their plane inexplicably lost contact whilst flying in formation and disappeared, with the crash evidence remaining undiscovered for many decades.   Campbell was one of the 176 casualties suffered by 2 Squadron during its WWII operations.

On 9 September General Sir Thomas Blamey, Australia’s only Field Marshall, delivered the terms of the Surrender to Lt-General Teshima, Commander of the Second Japanese Army on the occasion of the Morotai signing.  The words read out were harsh and unequivocal:

"In receiving your surrender I do not recognised you as an honourable and gallant foe ….. the atrocities inflicted upon the persons of our nationals as prisoners of war and internees, (were) designed to reduce them by punishment and starvation to slavery."

At this time there were several aircraft flying overhead with armed personnel on alert for any adverse responses from the enemy.  

At this pivotal moment of the cessation of an armed conflict that had persisted for almost four years, endangered Australia, and threatened the complacency of its isolation, the role of 2 Squadron suddenly shifted to provide air cover for the ground staff overseeing the surrender and disarmament of Japanese troops.   From this point onwards, the tide had turned.   The bombs carried by the Mitchells were replaced with food supplies and leaflets to advise those hiding in the jungles of Bali, Lombok, Flores and the Celebes that fighting had ceased.  

Alex continued with the Salvation Army’s welfare activities that focused on locating those local people seriously affected by the Japanese occupation and requiring support to resume their traditional activities.   The Mitchells were stripped of their armaments and converted to transports in order to be used as air ambulances flying to Labuan, then to Singapore, to repatriate the most urgent medical cases.  

Over the ensuing months, members of 2 Squadron were discharged and Alex reported his own return being particularly tense when the plane sprung an oil leak requiring a stop in Alice Springs to find a gasket from a car repairer’s workshop.  However, the oil spray continued to obscure vision and there was yet another landing for urgent repairs. 

Finally, the journey resumed southwards, only to have the wireless transmission break down necessitating some very low flying for the navigator to be able to sight the ocean’s ‘white caps’ to establish coordinates before final touch down at Laverton.   It was an ignominious, if scarcely unexpected, mode of return for this particular plane with its distinctive signage The Bad Penny(i.e. ‘always turns up’) carefully inscribed on the nose cap by the Squadron’s self-appointed artist.

The Mitchells were destined not to remain as part of the RAAF inventory and were scrapped, whilst the revetments, taxiways, maintenance, operations and domestic sites at Hughes airfield became overgrown with little remaining to testify to the Squadron’s presence during those tumultuous war years.  However, more recently there has been a revival of its utility for aviation.  

In 2012, the Northern Territory Government awarded a contract to a mining services’ company to repair and resurface the strip and prepare it for use by fire fighting aircraft, and even more recently there has been a proposal for its restoration as a general aviation airport separate to the main Darwin International Airport.

No 2 Squadron itself is still an operational RAAF unit based at Williamtown and Tindal in New South Wales and currently forms part of Australia’s Surveillance and Response teams.  Its most recent deployment is in the Middle East where it is assisting international operatives to disrupt the spread of ISIS in Iraq and neighbouring countries. It has had a proud history since its first mission in 1916 at the Western Front as part of the Australian Flying Corps and it was awarded special recognition with a Presidential Citationin WWII for outstanding performance of duty in action for its attacks on Japanese shipping in Australia’s northern islands.

Post-war, Alex did not veer from his passion for the welfare field that had been fostered during his war experience, and was involved in a number of areas including youth and family, child protection, personnel work, disability services and community organisation.[1]  Not only was he motivated by a desire to assuage the futility of war, but also to encourage more purposeful experiences amongst youth, especially those significantly disadvantaged.  

It was a time of optimism in the social welfare field as a network of organisations around Melbourne gathered together to professionalise youth services.  Many new initiatives that appeared quite novel at the time were trialled, including the first programme of work experience to facilitate young people’s transition into the workforce, especially in the impoverished inner-city areas.

Alex Greig (125672)

[1]  The Squadron produced 18 flying aces and shot down 94 aircraft with its own casualties being 25 personnel killed and 8 wounded during WWI.  It reformed at Laverton in 1937 prior to WWII using Anson aircraft.  Following the outbreak of the War, the Squadron moved to Darwin in 1941 to perform anti-submarine activities and general reconnaissance for which Hudson Lockheed bombers were deployed.  The detachment provided cover for Australian troops moving within the islands to the north and attacked Japanese shipping at Ambon, Timor, Koepang and other islands in the Banda sea.    By 1943, Beaufort bombers were utilised and the Squadron attacked enemy shipping and Timorese villages occupied by the Japanese and native informers.  By the following year the Squadron was equipped with Mitchell aircraft and began targeting enemy barges and freighters that were supplying their outer garrisons.  The Squadron finally assumed transport operations before moving to Laverton later that year, when it was reduced to a cadre basis and eventually disbanded in May 1946 until once again being reformed for later service operations.




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